Sea of Troubles

How I Use Notebooks

For a long time, I was exclusively a devotee of Moleskine notebooks. I took all my notes at work in the large (roughly B5) grid notebooks; there’s a nearly two-foot-high stack of them in my desk, representing more than half a decade of meetings. At some point though, something turned me off them. I’m not quite sure what: perhaps the paper quality changed or the price started to really get to me. Either way, I used Rhodia pads pretty extensively and became fond of Leuchtturm1917 notebooks (essentially, the Germans doing Moleskine right).

At the moment, I’m mostly writing in a Raven’s Wing notebook, which is probably sacrilege given how hard they are to find now (hint), and it’s very nice. I really understand the demands they apparently receive to reprint them.

While I go back and forward on what I take notes in, I have a pretty stable system for how I use notebooks. This system owes much to Bill Westerman’s GSD approach and Thomas Limoncelli’s Time Management for System Administrators (not that I’m really a sysadmin any more). See also Leo Babauta’s Zen To Done system, which is an excellent simplification of GTD.

On the first page, I put a couple of key pieces of information. I have a portable little stamp that has my name, mobile phone number, email address, and a plea for the return of lost notebooks, which I stamp on the first page. I also like using the RECEIVED and FILED stamps I use for documents to indicate the date ranges a given notebook covers; it makes it feel a bit like a passport.

Each day, I start a new page and write the weekday and date. Then, a list of things to focus on today — time critical and most important first. Personal items go at the bottom of the page and work their way up, and vaguely undefined things start in the middle.

On the next page, I start a running log of significant conversations, discoveries, tidbits, etc. Everything that isn’t recorded elsewhere goes here. In this running log, actions are prefixed by a ballot box (☐). As I get these extra actions done, I cross them out (☒).

At the end of the day, I pull forward any incomplete actions from the day’s list and anything with a ballot box not crossed out. As I do so, each ballot box gets an arrow drawn in it, to indicate that it’s been brought forward and this entry is no longer canonical. If I’m never going to do it, I put an “A” in the box instead, to indicate that it’s abandoned.

The usefulness of all this ballot boxing is that I can embed actions in notes of meetings, etc. Parsing meeting notes to find actions is very fast, and striking through them provides certainty that I don’t need to process that page again.

All in all, this system gives me a lot of utility. There’s one page of things I need to do, that’s automatically purged and re-evaluated every day. I know I’ve captured all my new actions, and I know that there’s only one canonical copy of each action. That’s a lot of uncertainty off my psyche, and well worth the minimal effort in the system.